Frans Timmermans: wielding power in the Brussels minefield

In one of Brussels’ most powerful roles, European Commissioner Frans Timmermans managed to quickly set the energy transition on course, thanks in part to his clever right-hand man, climate expert Diederik Samsom. However, poor relationships within the European Commission hamper the implementation of a number of crucial proposals, while support for his policies in the Netherlands is also waning. Despite these setbacks, Team Timmermans is attempting to manoeuvre the final dossiers through the policy-making process. Time is of the essence, with attention soon shifting to the European elections in May 2024.

This article in 1 minute
  • When Frans Timmermans missed out on becoming President of the European Commission in the summer of 2019, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte arranged for his role as number two to encompass the Climate portfolio. Rutte hoped that Timmermans would promote the Dutch climate-related ambitions at the European level.
  • Timmermans subsequently brought the former Dutch Social Democrat leader and climate expert Diederik Samsom to Brussels to flesh out the Green Deal. Together, they managed to make substantial progress on some of the primary issues.
  • Relations within the Commission are tense, however. President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen often upstages Timmermans. Other Commissioners regularly hinder his work as well, sometimes fueled by national interests.
  • Timmermans even clashes with his home country on occasion, especially in the realm of agriculture and nature. In the final 18 months of his term, biodiversity policy has become his major worry.

How we reseached this:

  • Author Jesse Pinster wrote this article, and conducted this research in cooperation with Simon Van Dorpe, Peter Teffer, Hans Wetzels and Lise Witteman.
  • Follow the Money spoke with over 25 Brussels insiders, sources in The Hague and others involved with Timmermans, such as his own staff, EU officials, diplomats, lobbyists, MEPs, and staff of NGOs. We also studied policy documents, debates, leaked documents, speeches given by Timmermans, his media performances and documentation related to his trips and meetings with others. 
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‘Power is not a dirty word.’ On 2 June 2022, Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s number two, was in The Hague for a lecture. ‘When we’re right, we Dutch are so happy that we tend to forget we also need to drive this home. And to do so, you need power.’

These were the words of Frans Timmermans, some three years after experiencing a bitter blow. In the summer of 2019, French president Emmanuel Macron rang to congratulate him on his new job: President of the European Commission!

This confirmed the news he had already heard from Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte. When world leaders gathered for a G20 summit in Osaka in Japan in late June 2019, Macron, Rutte, German chancellor Merkel and Spanish prime minister Sanchez divided up the Brussels jobs. Things seemed settled now that Germany and France were on board, since these are the countries setting Europe’s course.

Frans Timmermans

Born in Maastricht (1961), and raised in Brussels, Rome and Heerlen. Worked at the Dutch embassy in Moscow during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fluent in several languages.

Social Democrat (PvdA). Former member of the Dutch House of Representatives (1998-2007, 2010-2012), Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs (2007-2010) and Minister of Foreign Affairs (2012-2014).

Became European Commissioner in 2014, tasked with ensuring ‘better regulations’ and protecting the rule of law. The latter role regularly led to conflict with the Polish and Hungarian governments. In 2019, he became Executive Vice President of the European Commission, responsible for the European Green Deal.

But Merkel had overestimated her influence in the final stages of her career. Her expectation that other Christian Democrat government leaders in the EU and the European People’s Party (EPP) leadership would accept her choice proved wrong. ‘No one is bigger than the party,’ her party compatriots told her when she arrived in Brussels on 30 June for the EU summit intended to officially confirm Timmermans’ nomination.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and his Polish colleague Mateusz Morawiecki seized the opportunity to block his nomination. They still had a bone to pick with the man who had lectured them for years about respect for the rule of law. Yet Rutte persisted, while Merkel assumed she could sway her fellow Christian Democrats. The impasse dragged on deep into the night. Behind the scenes, Timmermans made every effort to convince his opponents that he was the right person to lead the European Commission.

In the end, Macron – although he had already congratulated Timmermans – proposed the German Minister of Defence, Ursula von der Leyen, an unknown quantity in Europe and controversial back home. The Spanish prime minister Sanchez ultimately tipped the scales. He preferred having another Spaniard, Joseph Borrell, as EU foreign affairs chief, to having a fellow member of the Party of European Socialists (PES) as Commission head. The house of cards so carefully constructed in Osaka had collapsed.

Timmermans was hit hard by the events. Despite his successful election campaign, which he had kicked off nearly nine months earlier on the terrace of his old haunt Café Pelt in Heerlen, his dream job had eluded him.

In the months that followed, everyone could see that Timmermans was heavily disappointed. According to several politicians and diplomats in Brussels, the wounds have yet to heal. In the autumn of 2019, close staff were no longer dealing with ‘merry Frans’, while others less close to him noticed that he had become difficult to reach and reclusive.

Climate chief as consolation prize

Yet just a few days later, he would take a crucial step. Timmermans called Diederik Samsom with an unusual request: would the former Social Democrat leader consider becoming a Brussels official?

European government leaders had assigned Timmermans the European Commission’s climate portfolio. Rutte had lobbied to reel in that dossier, convinced as he was that climate policy would play a crucial role in the future development of the economy. In that case, having an influential Dutch politician at the wheel in Brussels was an asset, even one who did not belong to a Dutch government coalition party.

A year earlier, in 2018, Rutte had admitted at a party convention that although he had wrestled with climate policy earlier, his thinking had recently ‘shifted’: he now saw major opportunities for Dutch businesses related to the required energy transition.

But operating at the climate forefront would only have benefits if the rest of Europe would do the same. In the run-up to the 2019 European elections, the Rutte III cabinet actively promoted Dutch ideas concerning sustainability, such as a climate law, circular agriculture and a ‘hydrogen strategy’, including carbon capture and storage, hoping to make these policy spearheads of the next European Commission. In that light, having a Dutchman running the climate portfolio was more than a consolation prize.

‘In Heerlen, he gained first-hand knowledge of what an unjust energy transition looks like’

But Timmermans was too autonomous to simply acquiesce to Rutte. Samsom, who became his second-in-command, was too headstrong as well, although he did have a good relationship with Rutte. ‘Samsom has his own agenda. Luckily this is usually in line with the Dutch government’s goals,’ says a Dutch diplomat who wishes to remain anonymous.

Other than his compatriot – who had previously worked as a Greenpeace campaign leader – Timmermans lacked an intrinsic interest in climate policy. Yet he is a clever politician – hors concours, according to many – with a strong sense of what will be dominating the political agenda.

Timmermans had to immerse himself in the climate dossier in order to master it. He slogged his way through the material, not being a policy wonk. But his hard work paid off: his in-depth knowledge combined with his political acumen soon had him excelling in every parliamentary debate and conversation with CEOs.

He also lent it a personal touch. ‘The energy transition that Frans is working towards is closely linked to Heerlen’s history,’ said Casper Gelderblom, alderman of that Dutch southern city, when speaking with Follow the Money. Timmermans lived there for years, and his grandfather had worked in the Heerlen mines. ‘Nowhere in the Netherlands would you see more pricey fur coats, when the mines were still active. Just two decades after they closed, we suffered the greatest drug problems and the worst poverty. Timmermans has first-hand knowledge of what an unjust energy transition looks like. It’s quite likely that this experience has helped him to determine how he wants to shape the energy transition at the European level.’

The strategist

Back to the summer of 2019 phone call between Timmermans and Samsom. Timmermans asked his party compatriot, then employed part-time as advisor to a waste treatment company, to become his chief of staff and develop the European Union’s climate policy.

Samsom has a strong memory of Timmermans’ mood at the time. He explains to Follow the Money that this phone call was Timmermans’ first step in processing his Von der Leyen trauma. ‘Frans is an experienced politician. He has long known that no political career is ever straightforward and that you are better off acknowledging this and to go with the flow. I think his calling me was part of this process.’

The two set to work in mid August, about five weeks after their initial conversation. Within a few months they had drafted the outline of the Green Deal. Timmermans and Samsom would later enjoy romanticising this period, claiming that they had worked at a kitchen table or in an attic room. In reality, it was in a twelfth-floor office in the Berlaymont building, the main office of the European Commission, together with a number of high-ranking Brussels officials.

At that stage, the two of them easily found support for their strategy within the Commission. Although relations between Von der Leyen and her number two were definitely tense, she embraced the climate plans. In order to cement her election as President in late November 2019, the Christian Democrat – who had been catapulted out of nowhere – required the support of the left flank of the European Parliament. The ambitious climate plans would deliver those votes. She was appointed, but only just. As a result, Timmermans’ appointment as climate chief was also approved.

On 11 December 2019, exactly two weeks after the vote, a strategy document outlining the Green Deal was published. It immediately became clear that Timmermans would have to endure Von der Leyen taking the limelight, even where his own dossier was concerned. The newly installed president intended to show who was boss from day one. ‘She is a control freak,’ says European Green Party MEP Bas Eickhout, who has worked in Brussels since 2009.

Von der Leyen took to the stage and announced to the cameras that this was ‘Europe’s man on the moon moment’. But she referred any tricky policy questions posed by the press to Timmermans. She would later regularly repeat this ploy. ‘The relationship between Timmermans and Von der Leyen isn’t very good,’ Eickhout says. ‘Her clipping his wings’ has a lot to do with this.

The diplomat

Von der Leyen habitually upstages Timmermans – and other commissioners. Quite recently, at the World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland, she claimed the honour of announcing that millions more would be made available for greening European industry, bypassing the Commission member responsible for the Green Deal. This package is the European response to the US Inflation Reduction Act, which involves hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts and subsidies for companies that want to go green.

Yet it is on the international stage that Timmermans fully came into his own. He spent a lot of time encouraging countries outside the EU to do more to counter global warming. In November 2021, at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, Timmermans showed how to do so, harnessing emotion and rhetoric.

‘He is not a bookkeeper who merely provides the information needed to convince you. He tells a story’

When negotiations ground to a standstill on the final day, Timmermans took to the stage. ‘[A]n hour ago, my son Marc sent me a picture of my grandson, Kees, who is one year old.’ Timmermans held up his phone to show the photo. ‘I was thinking Kees will be 31 when we’re in 2050 [...]. If we fail, and I mean fail now within the next couple of years, he will fight with other human beings for water and food. That’s the stark reality we face [...] avoiding a future for our children and grandchildren that is unliveable. [...] This is personal. This is not about politics.’

According to Samsom, ‘it really tugged at everyone’s heartstrings’ and Timmermans created ‘political momentum’ with the photograph of his grandchild. This is a tried and tested Timmermans method, says MEP Mohammed Chahim, a fellow Social Democrat, who spoke with Follow the Money. ‘He is no frugal Calvinist where words are concerned. He is not a bookkeeper who merely provides the information needed to convince you. He tells a story; he moves you.’

Sometimes Samsom will hand his boss a technical text on the EU’s negotiating position, which Timmermans will drily present. But every once in a while, Samsom will say: ‘Forget that text and just go for it.’ This results in evocative speeches in which grandchildren, historical events and social reflection vie for attention.

Just like two months ago, when Timmermans took the floor at 4 in the morning. At that point, everyone present in the European Parliament’s negotiation room had been there for thirty hours. On the agenda was tightening the European emissions trading system, a crucial part of the Green Deal. The Czech Republic was negotiating on behalf of the Member States. Progress was slow.

Outside the chamber, Timmermans was on the phone with the German chancellor Olaf Scholz, attempting to convince the latter’s footdragging government. Timmermans had hardly engaged in the meeting. ‘He didn’t know much about the details and didn’t use his power to advance matters, which was what I had expected,’ said the German chief negotiator, Peter Liese, speaking to Follow the Money. Other parliamentary sources go even further and claim that Timmermans simply is not that interested in the parliament.

‘Diederik Samsom grasps the content, strategy, control and overview’

However, once an agreement was reached, the orator suddenly emerged. Timmermans did not address free allocation of emission allowances or the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, but spoke about a chain-smoking Czech dissident, writer and statesman who had died exactly a decade ago. ‘Just imagine Vaclav Havel seeing us here tonight,’ the European Commissioner told his audience of diplomats, EU officials and MEPs. Havel would have been very proud of his country ‘[leading] Europe into the future’.

‘He makes you feel that it all means something,’ says Chahim, who was present during the nocturnal negotiations. ‘It makes you feel even better heading home. It might not be necessary, but it is nice.’

Urgency and emotion

Even his political opponents appreciate it. ‘He brings urgency and emotion to the table,’ says a prominent MEP. His confidence can, however, impede a candid conversation at times. ‘It’s funny how someone who is so international and speaks so many languages can be so convinced of being right in such a Dutch manner.’ 

Others tend to see his rhetoric as a way of obscuring the fact that he lacks grasp of the technicalities of his policy, although they do admit that this perhaps is difficult for someone who has only quite recently immersed himself in climate issues.

And he has Samsom for the finer details. According to MEP Jan Huitema (VVD, part of Renew Europe), the latter has the ‘brainpower’ and is the ‘mastermind’. ‘Diederik Samsom grasps the content, strategy, control and overview. Timmermans deals with the rhetoric.’

His people skills are also apparent in his cabinet. He is well-liked by his team. His staff describe him as warm, someone aware of a life outside work. He requests others to address him as Frans, and asks his close staff to tell him what they think, not what they think he wants to hear. This is quite unusual in the European Commission, which is extremely hierarchical.

Timmermans is wont to free up time for his family and for reading, and prefers his team to be able to do the same. This is an anomaly in the Commission, where working overtime and burnouts occur more often than not. Especially within the departments involved in the Green Deal, the work pressure is ‘insane’.

Although he does strike a balance between work and leisure, this does not stop him from reaching out during weekends. On Sunday mornings, he often sends his immediate staff 1000-word messages via WhatsApp, on hydrogen, competitive cycling or some other topic that has grabbed his attention. ‘He has passions aplenty and an abundance of knowledge,’ says one of his staff.

Team Europe

Relations elsewhere in the Commission are less easy-going. Headed by workaholic Von der Leyen, conviviality takes a back seat. Although she enjoys referring to Team Europe, the College of Commissioners (the official name of the group of European Commissioners) primarily comprises loners. ‘It isn’t a close-knit group,’ Samsom admits, adding that the business-like atmosphere also ensures a lack of animosity.

This positive take is not shared by all. ‘I don’t think he has many friends among the commissioners,’ says MEP Eickhout. ‘Timmermans is a politician with strong views, so he makes a lot of enemies. He could have achieved more if he had invested more in personal relations with his fellow commissioners.’

As a result, it took Timmermans a lot of time to convince all of the European Commissioners that drastic measures are needed to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. While it may be easy to set a distant target, acknowledging the actual consequences is another story.

But it could be that Timmermans simply wants too much, thus sparking opposition. In December 2022, Ryszard Koziołek, Rector of the University of Silesia in Katowice – the provincial capital of Poland’s primary mining region – organised a symposium where Timmermans was a guest. According to Koziołek, the European Commissioner should try harder to concretise his transition plans, especially for mining regions.

‘His incorrigible optimism is the weakest part of his vision’

‘People here are well aware that mining no longer has a future,’ the Rector explained in his office, its walls covered in art. ‘But Timmermans has failed to work out his European plans in detail. That leaves me thinking that his incorrigible optimism is the weakest part of his vision. This does not go down well in regions where people fear the future. Unless, that is, you translate such optimism into concrete proposals.’

Samsom recalls one of the other commissioners telling Timmermans that he was overreaching: ‘Too many proposals, too complicated, you’ll never achieve all that.’ Timmermans responded with a history lesson: ‘He answered that Mozart once played for the Austrian emperor. Afterwards, the emperor said: “That’s a nice piece, Mozart, but it has too many notes.” To which Mozart replied: “Certainly, sire, which notes shall I remove for you?” Meaning that you can’t remove bits from a symphony, since that will wreck it.’

Timmermans himself says that he will be measuring the Green Deal’s success by how well Poland makes it through the transition. He is particularly concerned about how the miners and their families will fare once coal mining has ended.

During his visit to Poland late last year, Timmermans announced that nearly four billion euros from the European Just Transition Fund would be made available to the mining regions. ‘The Green Deal will only be a success if everyone is a part of it,’ Timmermans proclaimed when he was appointed. ‘Climate policy is not just for tofu-eating Tesla drivers,’ he recently added.

Automotive opposition

Timmermans has already booked a major success in another area: the automotive industry. ‘I really spent a great deal of time on that,’ Timmermans said in early 2022 in the Betrouwbare bronnen (Reliable Sources) podcast. Cars and vans are responsible for nearly 15 per cent of European CO2 emissions. The Commission wants to prohibit the sales of vehicles with combustion engines after 2035.

Timmermans had his eye on this dossier from day one and spoke with all the major car manufacturers in Europe, who traditionally were able to count on their national government to fight for their interests in Brussels.

Times were with Timmermans though. A substantial part of the automotive industry realised that electrically powered vehicles were the way of the future, as proven by Tesla’s success. Furthermore, BMW and Stellantis (the manufacturer of makes including Citroën, Fiat, Opel and Peugeot) were unable to rally together due to the disagreement between them.

The trade unions offered more resistance, fearing the loss of jobs, particularly among suppliers of parts for combustion engines. This problem was allayed by the promise of European funds for retraining workers, as well as the good relationship between the trade unions and Timmermans’ Social Democrats.

His fellow commissioners may never seed doubts about agreements already reached. Yet he does so himself

And then there was the European Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton, who has been very forthcoming about his close ties with Stellantis. After an agreement about the ban of combustion engines had been reached in the autumn of 2022, Breton tried to throw a spanner in the works. He called the 2035 deadline into question and advised European car manufacturers to sell vehicles with combustion engines to African consumers.

Timmermans took Breton to task in front of the entire European Commission. He treated the proud Frenchman, who has his eyes set on Von der Leyen’s job, like a schoolboy. In an opinion piece, Timmermans repeated his points. ‘[W]e should not export polluting vehicles that will just shift emissions elsewhere,’ he wrote. And the 2035 deadline is cast in stone.

Timmermans is adamant: his fellow commissioners may never seed doubts about agreements already reached. Yet he does so himself: when the Commission claimed that investments in nuclear energy and natural gas could be given a green label, he distanced himself from this decision. In an interview, he stated that ‘he would have made another decision’. In The Guardian, he labelled the Commission’s decision to approve Poland’s Covid recovery plan – paving the way to access to 35 billion euros in EU funding – as an ‘incorrect’ one. Thus, time and again, news of disagreement seeps out.

Farmers and chemicals 

The strongest confrontations revolve around agricultural policy. The negotiations between the Commission, the European Parliament and the Member States on climate and environmental policy were in full swing when Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine in late February 2022.

The agricultural lobby seized the opportunity to use the war to frustrate Timmermans’ agenda. According to Copa-Cogeca, the powerful agricultural umbrella organisation, the war could potentially cause food shortages in Europe, certainly if ‘Brussels’ were to follow through with its greening plans. At a European Parliament hearing, Timmermans went all out, already convinced that the agricultural sector’s interests were thwarting his plans. ‘[T]o scare people into believing that we might not have food on our table in Europe is irresponsible. And frankly so incredibly, how should I say this, dishonest.’

The lobby was not alone in its opposition. The European Commissioner for Agriculture, the Polish Janusz Wojciechowski, also opposed the plans, as did various Member States and the Christian Democrat group in the European Parliament.

The collective counterforce proved successful. A Commission document recently acquired by the European news website Politico shows that action on many proposals – from reducing pesticide use to ending subsidies for promoting meat and wine – has either been delayed or even frozen.

Patience with Dutch prevarication has begun to wear thin, with Brussels no longer willing to adopt a flexible stance

The Netherlands is also opposed. The country is beset by problems caused by the poor implementation of European nature preservation legislation by successive Dutch cabinets dating back to the 1990s. The nitrogen issue and the (manure-related) nitrates derogation determine the debate in The Hague, leading the cabinet to delay any new initiatives for protecting biodiversity inspired by the Green Deal.

This attitude irks the Commission. And although it was another European Commissioner rolling out these policies, sources in both Brussels and the Netherlands note that Timmermans refused to defend the Dutch interests at stake. Patience with Dutch prevarication has begun to wear thin, with Brussels no longer willing to adopt a flexible stance, a position supported by Timmermans.

A rather more painful issue is that he seemed to be at odds with the Commission President where chemicals are concerned. According to a network of environmental organisations, Von der Leyen ‘stifled reform at the behest of the German chemical sector’. It took great effort by Timmermans to prevent the new rules from being scrapped altogether.

However much he hates to admit it, legislation concerning agriculture, the environment and biodiversity are not at the top of Timmermans’ agenda. Samsom refers to this part of the job as ‘the rest’ and is aware that not all proposals will make it. ‘Basically, such topics are generally briefly addressed at the end of a meeting, only to be put off to the next one. [...] In the hierarchy of political debate, biodiversity currently is in the same sort of position as the environment was ten or fifteen years ago,’ Samsom told Follow the Money. But according to him time is running out. ‘If the day comes that we have a summer without bees, we will really be in trouble.’

The future

So what does this mean for that composition in which, according to Timmermans, all the notes have a role to play? To the surprise of many, Timmermans’ climate policy has turned out to be quite a sturdy house of cards, and it largely remains standing. The aim to achieve climate neutrality in Europe by 2050 has been laid down in legislation, and Timmermans has ushered a major part of the underlying policies through the Brussels decision-making labyrinth.

The question is what his next step will be. Does he intend to return to the Netherlands to lead the left-wing merger party which he has been promoting? Or would he rather remain in Brussels, hoping to still land the dream job that slipped through his fingers in 2019? That would really be something, since, generally speaking, European Commissioners seldom get a third term, especially if their party is not even in power, like Timmermans’ PvdA.

Until now, Timmermans has been keeping mum. Yet there is no one, including his chief of staff, who rules out Timmermans attempting to acquire Brussels’ top job yet again. As Diederik Samsom, his right-hand man and Green Deal mastermind, says to Follow the Money: ‘Frans goes by his own rules’.

With the assistance of Simon Van Dorpe, Peter Teffer, Hans Wetzels and Lise Witteman

Translation: David Raats